February is National Heart Month. While America raises awareness for the vital organ, the actual maintenance and upkeep of heart health seems to confound many, including college students.
College is a highly stressful time for most young adults and heart health is likely not a pressing concern. Young adulthood is a time when cardiovascular health can inadvertently take a beating. A lack of sleep, stress, a poor diet and binge drinking are all factors that can have negative and long-term consequences on the cardiovascular system.
“While young adults have generally healthy hearts, the ‘building blocks’ of heart disease begins at this time,” says anesthesiologist Dr. Curt Peterson.
College students are notorious for maintaining a less-than-clean bill of health.
Heavy study loads require long hours that cut into vital sleep, and strict budgets may limit students to less healthy choices at the grocery store.
The Holy Grail of college student food, ramen noodles, contains a whopping 6.4 grams of saturated fat and 1,750 mg of sodium, or 72 percent of your daily value.
Processed foods are easy to access, cheap and require little to no time to prepare, which of course makes them highly attractive to students.
The World Heart Federation explains that the biggest culprits of processed food are high levels of trans and saturated fats and startling high levels of sodium.
Exercise is a crucially important factor in heart health, especially when eating healthy isn’t always a reality. Sedentary life styles and diets that are in high cholesterol are what lead to heart disease later on in life.
Another risk factor dominated by the college demographic is binge drinking.
We’ve all heard that a glass of red wine can improve heart health, but prolonged nights of binge drinking will just about break your heart, quite literally.
According to a study conducted by the Journal of American College of Cardiology, young people who binge drink are at much higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as a rise in blood alcohol to a percent of .08 grams or higher. This is typically achieved after about five drinks for men and four drinks for women over a two-hour duration.
Binge drinking can cause a cardio reaction called endothelial dysfunction. Endothelial dysfunction causes damage to the function of blood vessels and can cause a range of problems including sleep apnea, hypertension and — get ready men — erectile dysfunction.
In general, drinking should be limited to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men to avoid cardiovascular damage.
Just like alcohol, recreational drug use can wreak havoc on your heart health.
Cocaine, amphetamines and stimulants can cause anxiety, racing hearts and eventually heart failure. But a must less inconspicuous drug is making its way into student diets and routines on a daily basis: caffeine.
“Energy drinks contain a significant amount of cardiac stimulants that can cause heart arrhythmias if taken in excess. While such stimulant may improve performance, such benefits can be far outweighed by the risk they produce. All things in moderation,” says Dr. Peterson.
Small to moderate amounts of caffeine are usually perfectly safe and can have some health benefits. However, energy drinks packed with caffeine and chemicals can cause a problem.
“Start good heart healthy habits early in life. Have a heart-healthy diet now to have a healthier heart later. Exercise, exercise, exercise,” says Dr. Peterson.